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Chapter IX Captain Collins' Room

WHEN Oughtryn had put up his horse, he did not go in to the women, but entered the house by the yard door that opened into the Chamber. He found the red-coat standing with his back to one of the windows in the same wall, his face somewhat pale and hang-dog. His coat and shako lay on a three-legged table by the chimney, and he stood in his grey shirt and dirty white breeches, to protect the knees of which he had bound together a sheaf of straw, and this with wooden bucket and brush lay in the middle of the floor. Half of the room was damp with his scrubbing, the other untouched. It was fine and long. Three small white windows broke the walls on either side, the two most eastern with their shutters closed, the further with their shades raised a few inches over the slate sills. Between the outer pairs and the middle, on each wall, shallow arches had been sunk, and in these, in lieu of papering, some elegant amateur, dreaming of a classic past, had painted archaic shrubs and ferns waist-high, with here and there a Grecian pillar to the height of a woman. The sprays and pendants peeped from the plaster with a veiled air, the leaves, a bluish-emerald, the stiff stems and branches sunken to the drab of old wounds in cupboarded masters. At the west end, in a bow of windows, was a small mantel-piece of stone, its supports grooved and voluted to represent Ionic pillars; while a stone cornice, grooved in harmony—as with a rude tool groping after the Greek—joined walls and ceiling. There were two doors into the hall; one close to the north wall, and another not far from the south. Both were open at the moment, the room indeed being lit from the hall and the span of light beneath the shades. Against the more southern door, an octagonal table and three chairs had been pushed back, the soldier's blue bundle lying there, with his cane, a besom, and an empty drinking-glass.

When Oughtryn came in, he did not at first see the man, and when he had peered round, under his hat, at glass, bundle, coat, and shako, he shrilled out, “Where have ye got, officer?” rousing the hang-dog figure to a gabbling response.

“What's this!” he said, without the least movement of body or pale bold head, “Bonnypart himself! Been a-talking it over

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with your prisoner, Mr. Oughtryn. Very pleasant, you were, very pleasant and chatty. Yes, I seen you under the blind. My faith, says I, it's a herridge I see—what with swells turning prisoners, and prisoners turning swells! Not saying it mean-like, but the curiousness, Mr. Oughtryn, of the old fellow being your servant-man, and your treating him so deferential!”

“Why,” said Oughtryn, advancing on the figure in his blind, wide-eyed way, yet looking rather drawn in about the mouth-corners, “I don't quite remember you. You must be a older man than you look?”

“You're speaking hoarse. You needn't be afraid with me. Weren't you shepherding for Captain Blyth when the niggers was round Swan Port? You had a burning scare and we soldiers was run across from Richmond, one of us dying from fatigue. I remember at the burnt hut, a small hulking feller very bandy in the leg. My, you was doing the deferential in them days! Helping here, Capt., and smiling there, Capt. I didn't forget you, did I?”

“No,” said Oughtryn, “you didn't forget me. Nevertheless you're a puzzle to me. If you is a oldish guard, how do it come doing menial work at your time of service? It puts me to my trumps. Are you a special confidential—you don't look to me like a groom for the young ladies?”

“Ah, you want to know why they sent me? As to that matter you've fallen on your feet. Yes, I can fit you. I'm a gentleman as has had a experience lately as has made a changed man of me. To out with it flat, my wife has left her home, and gone off in suspicious circumstances on a ship for Port Phillip. I've been a bit snappish and sour, and they've put me here for this work, thinking the sight of the pretty young women would soften my business for me. Funny cures for funny ailments. It's as much as I can do to behave unrude to females.”

“What packet was that?” says Oughtryn. “We read of a prison-woman running off with the surgeon of the old Cardebeque. Was that your young woman?”

“Nay, I won't tell you what she went off in. She was no prisoner. Have some gumption, mate! You ask me why I'm a-scrubbin here, and I tell you I'm a man who's sick in his mind. I can't help that, can I? You'll have to put up with a bit of moonying and temper from this officer. You'd 'ardly call the old room cheerful for one of my ailment—yet I say this; these young ladies of yours is considerate of a man. They seem to scent he's off of the steady. You see 'em tip-toe in; leave a foul clout, or a sneaker of punch; and melt like a shadow.”

Oughtryn—as his habit was—retired backwards to a chair near the door at which he had entered, and sinking upon it, and removing his hat, stared widely and bulkily about the room. Once or so he made use of a box of sawdust behind him under the table. He had a foolish, half-placable look upon his face; the curious

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look of a man not quite comfortable in his own house, and not very pleased thereat.

“You've been here before, then?” he said, at length. “I hear you speak of it as the old room?”

“Long before youse come into dwelling here,” said the other, “that I can assure you.”

“Not in Collins' day, I bet! I can tell you they say his Honour, the Governor, died in this very room!”

“Well,” gabbled the soldier, laughing very quiet, “I know a bit more than that about Collins. I tell you I seen Collins dead on the floor of this very room when I was a young boy. I used to go of errands for him, and running in late from Government Paddock when the famine was on, I found Muster Gargrave and Dr. Mountgarret standing over someone on the floor by that right window. They must have dragged him over to the light. I saw it was Collins, though he was changed and dark in the face. The doctor told me to run off; the Governor was dead. I heard they'd found him a-crouching in the corner of a sofa by the fire, his hat on his head.”

“So you seen that?” said Oughtryn, rising and walking over to the fireplace. “Well, it wasn't usual.” (He stood peering stupidly into the right pillar of the mantel, and under the jalousie.) “I suppose it was done right,” he said, presently. “It was a strange time, I've heard say, when the famine was on:—kelp and kangaroo, and the prisoners freed into the bush, each man for himself. A fellow might have crept back through the lines— some one who hated bigger than he starved—and—but I heard say there was no wounds found on his Honour?”

“I seen blood on his Honour's fingers, I'll tell ye that, and some was on the books he had with him, as I know, because they come into my handling. The Governor's sister was about and the doctor. Can a man murder silent, and leave no mark?”

“Nateral 'istory narrates he was found dead in his chair. Being resident among these valuables, I get a-picturing what took place. It makes me curious to meet a man as saw him lying on this very floor. Now, Captain Daunt—you know the notable Superintendent Daunt—he says to me he didn't die in this mansion. ‘Collins,’ says he, ‘lived in a house called Regent's Villa.’ ”

“Daunt couldn't 'a said that. That gentleman knows I was here. You'd believe what I say if you knew how I've been all day dreading scrubbin' up a bloody board by that window.”

Oughtryn stood there bow-legged, very glum, and staring from the mantel-piece to the boards beneath the right jalousie.

“So you is to be made a useful nuisance?” said he at last, as with one rather crushed in his own house.

“A nuisance, mate! What do you mean?” The soldier turned his malign, efficient head towards him.

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“Hang me, you say them as sent you knew of your knowledge of my place!” (He lifted again his hat to his head.) “You know the place better than I do. Hang me, if I'll give in to too much open house!”

“My faith, I think you'll take as you're given!” said the soldier, feeling in his lapel. “Here's my order, and pretty stiff it is.” He did not move, but stood with the order in his hand.

Oughtryn, after an interval, squirted some juice into the box and came over. The order evidently displeased him, for he shifted his hat up, drawing his hand over his forehead, somewhat patient and fallen to pieces, while he brought the paper to bear against his wide eyes. “I see,” he said, resignedly, “when you're done inside, you're to take over the stabling. You're to 'ave the chaff-room for your bed. Well—no—it 'ud be handsomer between you and me and my gentleman if I give you the empty room above here, where there's an old squab and sofa. My gentleman's in and out of the stable. He wouldn't get along with that sort of plan.”

“Very considerate you are, mate, for me and the pass-man. What about the young ladies wanting available room? Read your paper. I've orders to occupy the stable and not to disturb the quality.”

“I see—they asks free of all available rooms, specally ground floor. I suppose you want your key and your independence?”

“You're a knowing one, asking why a man of my age and reckoning should refuse to be locked up!”

“Well, you'll sleep up above till the room's wanted. My gentleman won't stand you about his work. I don't know who would think of it.”

“Hang me—he'll get along safe enough for his ease and comfort—though I hears grumbling in stricter parts about you 'mancipists and your convicts would cause a man guard a good hand. I'll keep out of the old raff's way, if that's your fright, though I value a sack out there before a squab in the barrack. Believe me, it leaves a bad taste, Bonnypart, what with my disease and what I saw under the window. I cain't forget the old fellow. You give me the key and I'll sleep out.”

“I'll give you the key when the ladies want the room. I'm not going to have my man put upon.”

“My body, I don't want to be boxed up!”

“You can go and come as you wish.”

“I've told you, break your 'art, I don't want to be bothered with the women!” (There was a noise of footsteps in the yard, and the soldier drew aside the blind, looked out, and then back.) “I'm all sour like,” he continued. “No more relish for merryin' with 'em. I go off slack like a Birmingham gun.”

“My blind chit and the woman won't hurt you.” The soldier dropped back the blind.

“Well—d—n it!—you look out, altering orders!”

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“I'm here a-making a private asking for my stable till the Sunday?”

The other kimboed his arms and gave a cold, hang-dog shrug about the room.

“I tell you, mate,” gabbled he, “I don't want in here.”

“Why, gammon,” cried Oughtryn, “you're persistin' in that false bruit about my house, are you! Ill-tempered as like as ill I take it. I can't have you pertendin' to it. We'll have the whole rout of young ladies a-fainting and calling ‘ghost’ if you don't stifle that bit of 'istory. We're all friends here. We're your obedient, 'umble servants as long as you don't behave malevolent, and quick to obey orders. The ladies and gentlemen is welcome to all I have. I have no say where my benefactors is concerned. The 'ouse is theirs. But you leave my gentleman his place, and me a private say, and behave yourself healthy.”

“Nay, I'll not promise you, mate,” said the soldier, pushing himself from the wall. “Give me the order.”

Oughtryn held it near to him, congenial, dazed, and rather sunken of face. “Them orders is worded over-stern,” he said, shaking his head. “An old-timer doesn't need that.”

“Stern you'll discover 'em,” said the other. “You get me a drink, Bonnypart. I've a throat like a padded wall.” As he spoke, he thrust the thing in his pocket, and whipped up and shifted the bucket along the floor. “It's getting dark,” he added, kneeling upon the straw; “to-night won't see me at the chimbly.”

“You get your work done and eat a good meal,” said Oughtryn, making away through the north door. “You don't look to me like a supernatious man. Hang me, you spoil my cheerfulness talking heavy! Get your scrubbing done. I want to raise a talk about old times with you, bye and bye, in the garden.”

In the door he stopped and called high for “Abelia,” ordering some “cognac in a glass,” and after an interval, in which he stood chewing his quid and looking into the fading garden, while the soldier knelt upright in the middle of the floor, holding a brush in his hand and staring like a bald bad image of Pharaoh at the chimney—Abelia, blind and pale, came feeling over the half-lit hall, and approaching Oughtryn, thrust something white into his hand.

She would have given him the glass also, but that he beckoned her, with a neighing negative, into the Chamber, indicating, in a wide absorption in what she had brought him, the soldier kneeling upright in the centre. Holding forward the trembling, amber glass, the girl moved in, a blind—knowing not whither—smile under frightened lids. At first she seemed unable to locate a figure in the dark room, going south towards the table, but when she did so—her sight catching, perhaps, in the gleam in the bucket, or the man's white legs—then indeed she stopped, her face rigid, as if transfixed with horror, advancing only after an interval with frightened, late, placating smile. She came so

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lightly beside him, and the man was so absorbed in his sly, black-pupilled reverie, that he seemed be mazed by her appearance, ducking back with a violent laugh, as she stopped, with her hand out, holding the glass to him.

“Why, my charmer, I didn't know as it was you,” he said, and cursed, and took the glass as she held it out half-seeing what he did. Taking a swig, he stole a hard look at her pretty, nodding head, and afterwards another swig (more slowly), and then another longer look at her serene, trembling, pallid face.

“Ah,” he said, trying to soften his bold white stare, “it's you that was a-peeping round the other this morning. You're the 'ouse-pet, aren't you, my pretty? I can say that quick, can't I? You needn't be frightened of them soldiers no more, now you can start 'em like a sheep. A soldier of the Queen and your gentleman protector. Eh—now what 'ave I done? What—you won't forgive me! I'm a shiver yet. It's not the first time your pretty face trapped a great stoopid of a man or I don't know liddle shy—do I?”

Abelia drew away awkwardly, blushing a little, and trying to see him through her lids. “What's your will, soldier?” she whispered.

He gave another fluting guffaw, and threw up and lingered over his heel-tap. “That's brandy—that is,” he said, handing her the glass. “I'm no man for cat-lap.” Before she could free the glass he had her by the fingers. “Come, you think I jabber enough for two,” he whispered; “now, you say you forgive me for being a soldier and spoiled a-standing night-guard at the watches. That's where I been when you was sleepin' sulky, and you shrinks away from us now we're serviced. Remember the poor iron-grays, Queeny. Now then. Are you docile?”

She twisted in his clutch—striving to free herself with her other hand—her blind serenity trifled with—startled, paling, and then—laughing low.

“Oh, soldier, let go,” she whimpered.

“I'll let go, little shy,” he whispered—“I'll let go, if you say ‘poor iron-gray—he's rough.’ ”

“Poor iron-gray, he's rough,” she said, and he took his hand off hers and the glass. She went to the window for a moment, standing strange against the grey-green blind; and then fingered along the frescoed leaves towards the old man. He—Oughtryn—had not looked round. He had a paper in his hand, but was not looking at it. He was standing in his bulbous, bland, bandy way, masticating and looking out at twilit bushes. When Abelia got to the door, she examined him uncertainly. She then whimpered the question, “Will you sign the pass? It is Mr. Starkey who brought it, and he has been drinking. He says Sir William has had a fainting fit down in Asbold's shop.”

“It might be a mistake,” pattered Oughtryn, low but on a high key. “He has never drunk too much in daylight. Perhaps he

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is hac'ally taken ill. Eleven-thirty. Hang me, if I'll pass him out so late!” (He slowly tore up the paper.) “Things are not a-boding good. I will go down and bring him home.”

He had let the paper fall in little pieces over the floor. The next moment, reminded perhaps what was forward by the noise of the soldier's clout rinsing in the bucket, he turned, adding in a high, tinny manner: “Here, child, pick 'em up, every one of 'em. At that rate, we'll get no ball-room.” In answer, Abelia knelt in the door and began to gather them painfully and with a fumbling care that her blindness doubtless made necessary. Behind, the soldier suddenly made the gloaming clamorous with a harsh scrubbing and fluting:

Morruda, yerrabà, tundy kin arrà,
Morruda, yerrabà, min yin guiny wite mà là.

Of this day, crowded with strange incidents, perhaps the most surprising have yet to be related. Oughtryn had not been gone a quarter of an hour, when old Conapanny, the black, came into the yard, and sat smoking, among her bundles, at the kitchen door. A neighbour of two or three years, she paid the two women occasional visits, when she would tell of her yearning for the scrub, and ask questions about God and life, rather penetrating than curious, and always in the character of one who spoke to keep another talking. The Oughtryns were rather flattered by than enduring of her visits, for she was something of a celebrity, being one of those faithful women who acted as guides and go-betweens to Mr. Robinson on his “pacifications,” in particular his last journey over swamps and snow from Western Bluff: indeed, it was said that, like Truganinna, she had saved his life from drowning. “Marmanuke,” she would say, speaking by title of Robinson, “he stare at blackfellow—blackfellow lay down weapon”; adding when she chose to talk obscurely—for she had good enough English—“Blackfellow know Marmanuke velly angly for blackfellow,” Enough, though, of Conapanny's celebrity. She was one of perhaps seven natives left in the island for various reasons, herself at the instance of Robinson, who had appointed her native-nurse to the children of the exiles, in which capacity she served with a restless and convulsive devotion; now shrill and motherly; now taken by a fit of study and sunk in tattered copies of Rokeby or Paul and Virginia: for she had that elegant accomplishment; and now and again (after pining entreaty) dropping harness, and disappearing—humpbacked— into forests after roots and simples for childish ailment and perhaps her own.

This evening she had come a-begging a net of kidney beans from the fountain plot, and for these, since the women were bustled by the extra hand, “come scrubbing of the Chamber,”

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they had bidden her round by the house to pick for herself. She seemed shy of this, doubting “big-fellow Oughtryn, him hound her off,” and “Mr. Tuso-servant-man” (as she for some reason christened Heans, whom she divinely mimicked), “him holler to me from window,” It seems Sir William, early in his assignment, seeing her hanging about the garden, and puzzled by her appearance there, had, with one shout, caused her to flee away like the silent shadow that she was. It is to be added in fairness when next day Heans passed her in the yard, and stopped to listen to her “'ohoning” with Abelia, as is the way with women, Conapanny's amber eyes—instead of blazing with angry recollection— filled with inscrutable tears. To-night, when told that Oughtryn and ‘Mr. Tuso’ were not yet home, she consented with reluctant “youeys”note to help herself, but instead of rising, began emptying dainties, gathered elsewhere, from rush-bag to net. Abelia had seemed shy of her Conapanny to-night, and hung in the shadow of the kitchen, or behind the woman. She suddenly moved alone (serene and enigmatic) to the door-post, and stood blinking upon her. “Where you been to-day, Conapanny?” she trembled out.

“Where?” grunted the black, not looking up, but continuing her work with subtle fingers: “Mitis Langdale—Mitis Hall— Mitis Quaid—Mitis Shakerly. Mitis Hall poorly, Mitter Hall poorly——”

“Out all day?”

“Out all day.”

“Conapanny, who was it you talk with on the other side of the wall in the morning? Conapanny know! Tell me, Conapanny.”

“Ai—me talk with a friend,” said Conapanny, and she stared up.

“He spoke bad. I hear him. Why you no tell—poor Conapanny?”

“He spoke bad? You hear him?”

She took out her pipe, and knocking it on the flags, rose, hardly putting hands to ground. Then shouldering her bags, she stepped forward, staring past Abelia into the kitchen. The woman was busy at the range, and with a glance about, Conapanny stepped out again and stood a minute under her bundles with eyes on the ground. The courtyard was yet cosily alight, and now and then the leaves whimpered in their eyry at the summit of the gum. Steps came from the hollow room where the soldier was at work, and then a laugh, and then a swelling song. On a sudden, shockingly on this, there was a shout and a grim noise of struggling. Abelia turned and pushed

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inward to the other kitchen door, where the woman met her, and they put their arms on one another. It was pretty dark in the passage, which ran past kitchen and staircase—under which a doorway gave into the hall. Through the door the latter place gleamed faintly, showing in the opposite wall the south Chamber door standing open, and even the glass standing on the table and the bedimmed uprights of a chair. The struggle continued for the space of a half-minute, with now and then a desperate cry or exclamation; dropped; was resumed; and then dropped outright. Then followed the sound of a sort of shamed breathing. In the kitchen, the woman took courage, and called in a hard slow voice, “What is happening in the room?” There was a harsh noise as of an effort to speak, but nothing intelligible. Presently the woman called again: “What's befallen you, sir? Speak, if you please.” And now there came a sullen shout:

“Bring a light here. My 'and's caught.”

The woman, turning, snatched a candlestick and lit it at the fire. She ran to see if Conapanny was at the door, but she had gone. They then advanced along the passage—serene Abelia holding to the woman's waist—and turning down the warm hall, peered in at the Chamber. By the light of the candle, some one was seen lying by the right wall, near the upper end. “Is it you, soldier?” asked the woman, and the answer came in that swift unmistakable flute, “My b——y 'and's caught in the skirting, Sal; it's fair crushed, I'se warrant.” With a sigh of hesitation they sidled in along the wall, and looked upon the man from a little distance. “Ah,” cried the woman, starting back, “there's blood—you've wounded yourself!” Abelia did not move, however: she stood there gently blinking in the candle. He lay half on his back, his head sunk, his gaze adder-like, his long legs spread out towards them, unable to rise for his left hand, which was caught below the wrist between floor and skirting, which here gaped—as happens in sun-shrunken houses—near the distance of an inch. Supporting his body on his right hand, he gave an explanation in the jabbering jocular, though his words, his massive cheek, and his assured hard face were a trifle too remote and grey. “For a guard-officer, I've given us all a bit of sport,” said he. “Why, liddle shy, you'll have to beckon me over; I've no more pluck for the stormin' of your havenly citydel. My faith, you'll have the laugh of me yet! Mice is my game. Yes—I see something glint, and I put in me 'and after it (it was a little lady's ring and d——d if it didn't run in before my fingers), when I fancied something crossed my palm, and I fell a-struggling like a woman. Here she is—gripped,” he added, and gave a pull at his wrist, which was ringed about with a scar like a bracelet. “Now you get my bagnet from the chair, my tender girl, and I'll see if I can lever 'im out.”

The woman did not move, but Abelia, finding a strange courage, felt through the shadows and found and pulled the bayonet out

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of its black case, which the man, rolling over towards the skirting, took in his right hand, and thrust in beside the other. There was a crack, a struggle, and he swung over and sat up. After a space, he said: “You women scamper and get me a clout for my hand,” and the two left the candle and went away together. Presently after, Abelia came feeling in with some linen; and he rose from the floor and held out his wrist—silent while she bound it about.

Indeed, how silent these old homes can be in the evening!